Enthusiastic? Yes. Optimistic? Definitely. But naïve, they weren’t. Even after Robert and Page Bethke completed the six-week intensive course they jokingly referred to as “the scared straight for adoptive parents,” the couple was still convinced they wanted to adopt.
The course, presented by the Children’s Home Society of Virginia, is critical to understanding the issues a foster child may work through while adapting to a new home. One common problem seen in children with a disrupted childhood is attachment disorder. It develops when a child is prevented from experiencing a strong, safe bond with his first caretaker. The result? A child who is unable to risk forming emotional attachments with others later in life, who is defiant, or indifferent to others. To understand this phenomenon better, the Bethkes also participated in a program called Circle of Security which helps parents interact better with their children. That course involved videotaping the parents and child and studying the interaction in detail. Both courses were invaluable, they say, for parenting their new daughter, Ana.
Ana is an eleven-year-old girl with a beautiful face and smile. Removed from her home at age five due to neglect, a year later, Social Services reunited her with her birth mother. Over the next few years, her mother periodically “dropped her off” at various places when she could not care for her. Social Services finally petitioned the court to remove Ana permanently from her mother and place her in foster care, making her available for adoption. In two years, Ana has been in two different foster homes and four different schools.
The forty-something Bethkes thought an older child would make more sense for them. When they met Ana, they knew almost immediately they wanted her to be part of their family. After a two-month process of getting to know each other through visits and outings, Ana moved in.
It was not all roses. Robert, who has a teen daughter adopted from the Republic of Georgia as an infant, says, “The first thing Ana told me when she came to live with us was, ‘You know, as soon as I turn 18, I’m going back to live with my mother.’” And later, for effect, she added, “‘Why should I believe you? You’re some guy I just met.’” Page explained that they learned in their training that a common miscue from kids who have been in foster care is, Go away – I don’t need you, when what they really mean is just the opposite.Thanks to their training, the Bethkes feel like they have been able to meet all of Ana’s challenges head-on. “Adopting a child from foster care can be difficult, but it is one of the most worthwhile things we have ever done,” Page says.
Ana’s say in the matter: “I like these people. I like the dog. I like having an older sister. They are strict but not too much. They transitioned me slowly, a little at a time and that was good because I had gotten to like my last foster home and it was sad to leave. I have learned better how to work with people.”
Then there’s Janeva Smith’s story.
She and her 5 siblings lived in New Jersey with their mother. Often neglected, ultimately all 6 children were placed in foster care. Eighteen-month-old Janeva and one sister were adopted by a married couple who then moved to Virginia. The couple who adopted Janeva kept her until she was 14. But when they divorced, her adoptive mother was unable to continue caring for her and placed her and her sister in foster care here. Over the next four years, Janeva, separated from her sister, was placed in 11 different foster homes, shelters, and temporary residential centers. She was on the streets homeless for at least one week. During this time she struggled with thoughts of suicide. She has been in five different high schools.
Suzanne Hanky, formerly a family educator with Commonwealth Parenting Center and an adoptive mother herself, explains that children do not process sorrow and anger the way adults do. Adults have developed coping skills and have more control over their situation than children do, while children transition through the stages of grief using emotion. They frequently express those feelings by acting out – the type of acting out that caused Janeva to move and be moved through all these placements.
Hanky says children in a typical family setting go through stages of emotional acting out, especially during the teen years, but a child who has been placed in foster care or up for adoption is dealing with feelings of insecurity. The child thinks, Someone – my mother, my father, did not want me. Why? What is wrong with me? The more emotional turmoil the child is going through, the more likely it is that his placement may not work out, especially if the adoptive or foster parent takes this personally, as a rejection of them. Hanky explains that parents, whether biological or adoptive, must realize the child is not a project of theirs, but a person with whom you want to have a relationship.
Foster care or adoption is a serious and life-changing choice, but hugely rewarding, she maintains. As it should be with any child, Hanky says caregivers invest a tremendous amount of physical and emotional energy and time. Her suggestion is to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. She advises, when people ask embarrassing or inappropriate questions, to answer in the most positive way, stressing that children pick up on anger. “You can’t personalize it or make the child a reflection of you. It’s about their feelings, not yours.”
For Janeva, a turning point came when Krista McCulloch, an adoption recruiter provided by Children’s Home Society of Virginia, entered her life. Janeva says she fought Krista at first, but Krista says, “It was tough going, but I realized Janeva needed me to hang in there with her and things are working out.”
For Janeva, now 18, the traditional family scenario wasn’t meant to be. She is trying to live on her own. Chesterfield Social Services is helping her with rent until she can get a job. She attends school part-time, working towards her high school diploma. She is considering a career in the Navy. Krista is there, guiding her. She says, “I am very hopeful for Janeva’s future.”
There are close to 6,000 children in Virginia in foster care. Many are eligible for adoption. Young Ana says, “People all want babies. But if they are smart, they will adopt older children. That way they know what and who they are getting.”